I first got involved in advocacy and political organizing during the 2004 presidential elections. People around me at that time, and one professor in particular introduced me to ideas that I hadn’t thought about before. I’m going to list them here and then share a little bit about what I think they mean in the context of President Trump’s inauguration and the incredible mobilization of demonstrators for the Women’s March that followed this past weekend. I hope this spurs a discussion here on GMD about what happens next in Vermont and beyond.
1. Civic Responsibility – Our political institutions are inherently adversarial and require a diversity of opinions and ideas to evolve.
2. Privilege – The special advantages that one group of people has that another does not are invisible to many of us, but are real and powerful.
3. Organizing – There is a difference between strategy and tactics. Effective communications, field work and fundraising require skills that can be taught. Learning how to effectively organize and mobilize people is the way to bring about change in a democracy.
My first reaction to the Women’s March was something like “Where the hell were all of these people last year?” I was running for a seat in the Vermont House (a race I narrowly lost) so I was deep in the thick of talking up Democratic candidates, attending and putting on events, making phone calls and knocking on hundreds of doors. Over and over I heard people say things that scared me about hating politics, hating all of the candidates and NOT voting. I heard longtime Democrats say they weren’t coming to help work at the campaign HQ because of what the Dems did to Bernie or because of one of Hillary Clinton’s scandals.
A lot of people who were mobilized by the 2008 Obama campaign (and even 2012) were MIA in 2016. Why didn’t people feel the same sense of civic responsibility? Some thought that there was no chance Trump would win. Some felt betrayed by the DNC and the Party’s (very predictable) resistance to a challenger from the outside in the form of Bernie Sanders. People weren’t excited about Hillary as a candidate in the same messianic way they were excited about Obama. So, they excused themselves from organizing and mobilizing and the leaders of the Democratic party, including Hillary Clinton, had no effective message to fire them up.
What does this have to do with Privilege? The first campaigns I worked on were about global access to health care, especially HIV/AIDS treatment. I felt (and initially had to be called out) when I was 19 that my privilege and the power it gave me obligated me to do what I could to advocate for people who did not have the same privilege and power. I still feel that sense of obligation and I feel strongest when I help lift up voices that aren’t as powerful as mine. I was proud to work with Migrant Justice to get Driver’s Privilege Cards for undocumented farm workers. I loved working on the campaigns of women who were running for State Senate.
A photo has gone viral that to me captured a troubling aspect of the difference in the acknowledgment and the manifestation of privilege between serious advocates and first-time demonstrators, not to mention between white and minority participants in the marches. If you were wearing a PussyHat and taking selfies, please don’t take offense. I’m glad you were out. Thanks for demonstrating. Just listen to what Angela Peoples had to say, too.
The people I was trained by when I was bird-dogging John Kerry and Howard Dean while they were running for President in 2004 taught me that good campaigns have a clear strategy. Our strategy in 2004 was to get the Global Fund for AIDS, TB and Malaria funding by raising the profile of global health issues during the presidential campaign. Our primary tactic was to bird-dog the candidates, showing up at every public appearance and asking whether they would Fund the Fund. We had a clear ask of all of the candidates that was directly connected to the accomplishment of our goal.
Marching and demonstrating is a tactic- not a strategy. I spent some time at womensmarch.com trying to figure out what the march was officially about. Friends and family have told me that it was about “being inspired”, “making voices heard”, “solidarity”, “protesting Trump’s illegitimate election”, “protecting reproductive rights” and a host of other reasons. I could not for the life of me find a single concrete “ask” on the website.
Angela Peoples, the woman in the photo with the sign said,
“[Fifty-three percent] of white women voted for Trump. That means someone you know, someone who is in close community with you, voted for Trump. You need to organize your people.” And some people said, “Oh, I’m so ashamed.” Don’t be ashamed; organize your people.
Angela Peoples knew why she was at the march. She wanted to be inspired and she wanted to guard against complacency. She recognized that the Women’s March had to be the beginning of something, not the end of something. The key to achieving any of the disparate and diverse goals of the marchers would be sustained organizing and engagement.
So are you ready to take responsibility for your part? Are you ready to exercise and protect the privileges that we have to speak, demonstrate and run for office? Are you ready to organize? Come to a meeting, bring your friends. Organize your people. It’s going to be a long four years and there’s plenty of work to do.